All signs point to the $787 billion federal economic-stimulus package signed into law on February 17 by President Obama becoming just the beginning of a major increase in governmental involvement in early childhood education, particularly of 3- and 4-year-olds.
The question is whether the billions of borrowed money will be spent on programs that maximize returns on the investment, or mainly benefit teacher unions by adding thousands of new, government-certified teachers to their membership rolls.
The 3.2-million-member National Education Association has invested heavily in promoting universal, government-run pre-kindergarten. The union has asserted consistently that “public schools should be the primary provider of pre-k programs, and all funding must be allocated to them in the same manner as K-12 schools.”
New Jersey is one state that already is dangling extra tax dollars in front of local districts that agree to use part of their federal stimulus aid for expanded public preschool. State education officials recently said the incentive funds could go for expanding preschool programs, hiring new government-certified teachers, or other costs.
Education commissioner Lucille Davy indicated this initiative would be funded entirely by the state and federal governments without any local tax dollars. In a development that should concern many parents, that surely means localities will have little or no say in what these programs look like.
Any push by federal and state officials for preschool uniformity could have major implications for the well-being of children, the choices available to families, and even the nature of parenting.
The strongest body of research supports targeting investments to children from poor families for high-quality programs designed to increase their readiness for academic learning when they reach kindergarten. Such programs can help prevent at-risk, and especially black and Latino children, from falling behind their peers in the early primary grades.
But research also indicates there is also a strong potential for government early childhood education programs to do more harm than good when they are expanded to include middle-class families. The quality of parenting remains far and away the strongest predictor of children’s future academic success, as measured by reading, math and vocabulary achievements as children grow older.
Thus, any government push for pre-K uniformity that caused a child to spend more time in government-run centers and less time under the influence of quality parenting could harm his or her educational prospects.
Currently, more than 80 percent of children enrolled in early childhood education and day care in the U.S. are in privately run programs. What prevails now is something far different from the system sought by the NEA and other fans of statism, something that is diverse and driven by individual choice and need: a collection of programs offered by non-profit and faith-based organizations, home-based private providers, for-profit companies, Head Start agencies, and many kinds of schools.
Initiatives such as the Obama “Zero to Five” blueprint could undermine parents’ ability to choose the type of arrangement – part-time or full-time, faith-based or secular – they considered best for their child. They also could prove harmful to private-sector providers of early childhood services.
A wiser approach than a creeping government takeover would be to allow tax subsidies to follow underprivileged children to the type of program chosen by the parents. Low-income families deserve the same array of options, including those in the private sector, that more affluent parents have. And parents frequently evaluate the quality of preschool programs differently than government bureaucrats do.
A particularly promising alternative exists in charter schools, those innovative and independently managed public schools of choice that the Obama Administration has praised as an important tool in the school reform toolkit for helping lift student achievement for at-risk student populations. In the District of Columbia, with 90 charter school campuses serving one-third of all public school children, highly effective and often innovative early childhood programs are a big reason charters have gotten so popular, and grown so quickly.
Targeted programs, such as those underway in many inner-city charters, make more sense as a way to help disadvantaged children by means of early schooling than do big government programs that squeeze out choice and diminish the role of parents through arbitrary measure of program quality.
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